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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)


There are two distinct areas that improve your chances of locating a stolen car. The first is areas where cars are taken from and the areas they are dropped. The first should be obvious. If you have an increase in either stolen or recovered vehicles in a specific area, you are near a fishing hole. The second less obvious, is to go where other crime occurs. Any area on your beat where you have a narcotics problem is likely to have a greater percentage of stolen cars. Also, research indicates you need two things for the likelihood of a crime to occur – young men and alcohol. Seriously, that’s hard research data. You get both elements at bars. Make bar parking lots and surrounding areas places at which you hunt for stolen cars. Add to bars, low-end motels and I will wager that if you consistently check the plates on the cars in the bar and low-end motel parking lots you will find stolen cars.


Developing informants, especially citizen informants, is the hallmark of a great beat cop. Throughout the last seasons of the HBO television show the Wire there is a Middle School kid who loves cars. More importantly, he loves to steal them. It is a running joke in the neighborhood. Everyone, except the police, knows the kid steals cars. When you talk to people, ask them about crime – dope, money, guns, who is wanted (or thinks they are wanted) and add stolen cars to the list of your questions.


As a watch commander, I would watch cops write down the wanted information in their notebooks. Rarely did someone come back to the station in the same shift with the stuff they had written down. I think this was because there is too much going on. I developed a simpler system. You don’t need to memorize the plate of every stolen car, but if you can remember enough to jog your memory – at the right time – you will make great observation arrests. Go into records, detectives and listen to the watch commander. On freshly stolen cars, memorize just enough. As an example, if I told you a vehicle with the plate 2NMG187 was stolen, could you memorize the plate and recall it throughout your shift as hundreds of cars passed you? You would be more likely to remember pieces of information you can relate to other information. With that plate, I would memorize one of two things 1) NMG – No More God. Now, throughout the shift, every plate with NMG would draw my attention. 2) 187 is the California Penal Code Section for murder. Again, every plate with 187 would come to my attention. Try attaching parts of the plate to some other piece of information and then using that as a pointer.

License Plates

Over the years, this has become more complex. It used to be fairly simple: old cars can have new plates but new cars can’t have old plates. Before the barrage of vanity plates, plates were issued primarily by series. This is still, to some degree, solid information. In most states, you can tell what year a plate was issued by the number. So, if a new car had a plate that was issued five years ago, it was likely “cold plated.” Paying attention to the series is still good cop work. Moreover, plates that aren’t securely attached, the light is out or perhaps the number is partially obscured, bear a closer look.


There are any number of “cheat sheets” you can buy that will tell you where secondary and hidden VINS are located. In your kit bag, carry a little degreasing substance, a dirty rag and a mirror and you are on your way to becoming an expert. If you are impounding a car anyway, check the secondary and hidden VINS. A couple of minutes extra work could lead to an excellent arrest.

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